WASHINGTON (AFP) — US intelligence czar Mike McConnell equated waterboarding with torture in an interview released Sunday, but denied that the United States tortures terror suspects during interrogation.
"Waterboarding would be excruciating," the US director of national security, in overall charge of intelligence, said in the interview in the New Yorker magazine, speaking of the simulated drowning technique that many regard as torture.
"If I had water draining into my nose, oh God, I just can't imagine how painful! Whether it's torture by anybody else's definition, for me it would be torture," he said.
When asked to define torture, McConnell replied: "My own definition of torture is something that would cause excruciating pain."
While denying that US officials sanctioned the torture of terror suspects, McConnell told the New Yorker that the Central Intelligence Agency's "special methods" of interrogation had yielded "meaningful" intelligence.
"Have we gotten meaningful information? You betcha. Tons! Does it save lives? Tons! We've gotten incredible information."
But he told the magazine flatly: "We don't torture."
Waterboarding involves pouring water over the covered mouth of a suspect, creating a sensation of drowning.
It has become a focus of debate in the United States after revelations last month that the CIA in 2005 destroyed video tapes of interrogations of two Al-Qaeda suspects reportedly undergoing harsh techniques, sparking charges that it was covering up possible torture.
CIA director Michael Hayden has denied that torture took place and argued that the tapes, made in 2002, were destroyed to protect the identities of CIA agents.
Reacting to the interview, CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said McConnell's statements are "a very strong endorsement of the value of CIA's detention and interrogation program."
"By expressing such sentiments, he clearly recognizes the value of CIA's efforts to help protect Americans," Mansfield told AFP.
He declined to comment on specific interrogation measures by the agency, but emphasized that "they were deemed lawful" by the US Department of Justice and approved by the National Security Council.
The agency also fully briefed the congressional intelligence oversight committees on the interrogation methods, he said.
Newsweek magazine reported Sunday that the CIA has launched an internal search for more audiotapes or videos depicting interrogations of suspected terrorists.
Citing information from two unnamed US officials, the weekly reported that the hunt is part of the agency's response to simultaneous investigations by the US Justice Department, Congress and the agency's inspector general.
The officials, who requested anonymity, told Newsweek they believed the agency did not itself make additional recordings of interrogations, but might have received recordings made by other intelligence services that questioned Al-Qaeda suspects.
In the New Yorker interview, McConnell also discussed December's National Intelligence Estimate that said Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
That finding ran counter to claims by President George W. Bush's administration that Iran had a secret, ongoing nuclear weapons program.
The intelligence community was criticized for having undermined the White House by releasing the document, but McConnell said there was no other choice.
"If we didn't release it, it would leak, and the administration at that point would be accused of hiding information," he said.
The New Yorker also interviewed David Shedd, McConnell's deputy director for policy, on the fruitless US search for Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
"The trail is cold," Shedd told the weekly. "It's as hard a target as we've ever faced."
McConnell added that while Washington still does not have know bin Laden's whereabouts, if he is located "we'll bring it to closure."
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